John Craigie. Photo by Bradley Cox

Laughing Through the Madness with John Craigie (Interview)

Good singer-songwriters make you cry about the sad stuff. Great singer-songwriters make you laugh about the same things. 

Portland-based folkie John Craigie comes to Chickie Wah Wah Thursday night, October 10, to turn the trope of the solemn singer-songwriter on its head. His songs have big ideas – spirituality, heartbreak, and societal woes – but there’s a secret weapon in his arsenal. He’s got jokes. Craigie fashions himself a storyteller and entertainer above all. Sometimes, that comes through in his songs, but there’s magic in the stories between songs, too. 

Inspired by comic touchstones Richard Pryor and George Carlin, Craigie points out the often absurd ways our society acts and treats one another, and uses laughter as the remedy. But like folk heavyweights Todd Snider and John Prine, Craigie does it with melody.

In front of Thursday night’s show at Chickie Wah Wah, Craigie spoke to OffBeat about the common threads between songwriters and stand-up comedians, how to make heavy songs feel lighter, and how humor keeps us sane.

Right off the bat, it sounds like New Orleans has inspired you a bit, especially in your Apocalypse is Over record. What’s your history with the city and what makes it so special to you?

I started coming to New Orleans the year after Katrina. I know nothing about the city other than the simple American reputation of it, so there was definitely some ignorance of it early on, but it’s been fun watching it rebound. The spirit doesn’t die and it’s truly a holy place for any musician. It’s always been a source of inspiration, but it hasn’t felt like a place for me to play my own stuff until now. 

Why is that?

We hadn’t found the right venue for the singer-songwriter storytelling that I do and I didn’t know where the audience for me was. I felt like people were looking more for the high-energy party and dance sets, but that’s not my stuff. I would come and play places like Neutral Ground and Kerry Irish Pub, but this is my first actual show there on my own. 

When you’re on the road all the way from Portland, how much time do you allow yourself to explore the cities you’re in?

It depends on if I like the city or not. With New Orleans, I always give it at least a week. But oftentimes, if I don’t like the city, I’m in and out. 

What have you learned from your travels on the road?

That’s where most of the learning and inspiration takes place – that 23 hours when you’re not on stage. 

Why is that? Because those are the times when you’re able to get more introspective?

I love the stage. It’s what I do this for, but it’s not a normal part of life.

You’ve mentioned that the title of your No Rain, No Rose record is inspired by the Buddhist “no mud, no lotus” philosophy. Can you talk about that sentiment? 

When I was making that record, it was a sad and dark time in Portland, as it gets there sometimes. I was surrounded by a lot of friends who had been through breakups or loss of some kind. I could tell that with all this pain, we were going through a rebirth of some kind. Someone showed me that quote from Buddha and I was going to call it that, but I didn’t want people thinking it was going to sound like a New Age record. 

Does Buddhism inform your everyday life?

I couldn’t say that. All the spiritual paths affect me some. I was raised Catholic and that weighs on me like any good Catholic child. Luckily, I was exposed to all the major religions, though – Islam, Judaism, Christianity, and Buddhism – and they each have some validity. I was reading books like Siddhartha and Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance during that time, but really, it was just the quote that applied to what was going in our friend group at the time. 

Is it harder to write those “big idea” songs that center around spirituality and politics or the ones that are more of your light-hearted funny stuff?

It really depends on how it comes to you. Sometimes, it comes all in one package and sometimes, it comes in pieces. To me the question isn’t how hard the song was to write, but how hard the experience I had to go through was in order to get the song. Songwriting is never that difficult for me because I never force anything. I let it come freely. But, yes, some songs come from a hard experience of my own, while others come from a more lighthearted space or as an observer of someone else.

What’s better fuel for songwriting – love or heartbreak?

I think we all know the answer to that question. Both inspire, but the heartbreak is what brings it out. When you’re in love, you’re too busy smooching under the bridge to write your songs. With heartbreak you’ve got plenty of time. Like Joni Mitchell would say, “You don’t know what you’ve got ‘til it’s gone.” It’s in those times that you turn to art to secure you. 

Do you come out of writing those heartbreak songs more or less hopeful?

More. If nothing else, I know that community and art will always be there to lift us up. The rest is chaotic, but if you have that relationship with the muse, you’re indestructible.

Why is humor in song so important to you?

I respond really well to humor. The world is such a strange and tragic place that it’s hard not to laugh sometimes. People relate to that. One thing I don’t like about seeing an artist is if, at any point, they’re not genuine. If an artist just gets up there and tells you, “Love is the answer and everything’s going to be alright,” that bothers me. If you’re going to give your attention to an artist, you want them to be honest with you and with themselves. Humor is often a way to show you’re being honest with the whole thing. My kind of humor is a lot of making fun of myself, but also, making fun of ourselves as a whole and the things we do. I was a humorist before I was a musician, so I’ve always felt comfortable in that realm. 

When you say humorist, were you a writer or doing stand-up or what?

Just being the funny kid. I did dream of doing stand-up, but it’s very hard. With my job, I can do a little of it. 

Are there common threads between songwriters and stand-up comedians?

Definitely. The best of both have a lot in common. People connect with stand-up comedians who can be more than just funny and with musicians who can be more than just serious. If there is good storytelling and there is honesty, people will come.  The comedian I get compared to the most is Mitch Hedberg, but we couldn’t be more different as far as our subject matter. He’s very dry, but also very esoteric, meta, and his jokes are not based in the reality of his life. We have a similar, shy delivery that connects us. 

What’s more important to you – the record or the live show?

Live show. 100%. 

Because of the connection with the audience?

A lot of reasons. First of all, I’m better at the live show than the record. The record is a weird concept. You create this thing and put a lot of work into it to make it exactly how you want it to sound and then you never listen to it again. You give it to someone else to listen to. You can’t shape the record to fit each individual’s situation. But with the live show you can feel out your crowd. At a live show, if Trump just got elected, I can use that sense of despair lingering in the room. 

So you like the fact that the live show is ever-evolving.

Exactly. You can change it in the moment. Someone could yell out something or boo or laugh. That’s one of the reasons I could never do a funny song on one of my records. It’d be awkward. Jokes to dead air. It’d be psychotic. 

Do you practice the stories you tell in between songs?

Only in front of people. With songs, you can still be in your bed and play the songs over and over again where you’re protected. With stories, the only way to practice is to tell someone. I love the first few times I tell a story because it has that rawness before they get chiseled down.

What’s harder to take – getting no response from a story or getting none from a song?

Stories, because you’re more vulnerable. No matter what people say, no art leaves you more vulnerable than spoken word. Having the guitar and the music there in song can act as a shield. With spoken word, there’s nothing. 

How do you handle the nerves of playing in small listening rooms like you will be at Chickie Wah Wah?

I thrive off it. The closer I am to the audience, the more aware of the size I am. The more enclosed and together we are, the more sense of community I can build and the better the show. 

Talk about the charity angle of your Keep It Warm tours. This year, you’re donating to the homeless, right? Do you find it’s your duty to help since you have the audience and the ability to spread the word about the issues we face?

I went on tour with Jack Johnson and watched the way he was philanthropically. I’m obviously not that level so can’t throw a bunch of money at these things, but I wanted to do something, so me and my manager started talking about things we could do. Last year, we did a big clothing drive for the homeless  and this year, we decided to focus on food. With each year, I’ll find another thing that I feel strongly about and put it full focus.

Show: Thursday, 10/10; 8pm; $10

Chickie Wah Wah, New Orleans, LA

w/ Patrick Cooper